The cake originates from the Middle Ages when cakes were typically prepared and offered to the Church on the middle Sunday of Lent. In the 1600s, this day gradually evolved into Mothering Sunday (Mothers’ Day), a day when servants and employees were given a day off so that all the family members could meet to honor their mother with flowers, and sometimes the gift of a Simnel cake from their employers.
The cake has become a classic cake of the Easter period and retains its religious association through its decoration of 11 marzipan balls or molded figures around the edge of the cake, representing the Apostles (with the exception of Judas) and sometimes a further figure in the center, representing Christ.
Various English towns have developed their own version of Simnel cake. The first recipe below is for a classic Shrewsbury Simnel cake, which is much simpler to make than it looks. The second recipe is from the town of Bury in the north-west of England, which has developed its own version of Simnel cake, resembling a handy-sized festive pastry rather than a cake, easy to make and good for serving at any holiday time of year (Christmas, New Year…) or even as a lunchbox dessert treat.
Shrewsbury Simnel Cake
This cake works very well with shop-bought marzipan but tastes even better with a home-made almond paste that is less sweet and incorporates more almonds.
● 2¾ cups (12 oz / 350 g) of plain flour
● 4 large eggs
● 2 sticks (8 oz / 240 g) of butter, at room temperature
● 1 cup (8 oz / 240 g) of caster sugar
● 2 cups (12½ oz / 360 g) of currants
● 1 1/3 cups (8 oz / 240 g) of sultanas
● 2/3 cup (4 oz / 120 g) of seedless raisins
● 1 cup (6 oz / 180 g) of mixed peel, chopped
● ½ tsp (2.5 g) of grated nutmeg
● Pinch of mixed spice
● 1 tsp (5 g) of baking powder
● 24 oz (680 g) of marzipan
● Pinch of salt
● Apricot jam or marmalade, to coat
- Pre-heat the oven to 325°F (160°C).
- Combine the flour, baking powder, mixed spice, nutmeg and salt in a bowl and set aside.
- Cream the butter with the sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy.
- Add the eggs to the creamed butter, one at a time, beating thoroughly to combine after each addition (add a little of the flour mix with the last egg to prevent the mixture from separating).
- Combine the fruit and mixed peel in a separate bowl then gradually stir the remaining flour mix into the egg and butter mix, alternating with the mixed fruit.
- Combine until the constituents are thoroughly mixed and the batter is smooth (if the batter is too thick, add a little milk but a good support for the marzipan filling is required).
- Spoon half the mixture into a greased 8” (20 cm) round cake tin, lined with waxed or greaseproof paper.
- Take a small quantity of the marzipan and make 11 or 12 small balls or figures with which to decorate the top of the cake.
- Divide the remaining marzipan roughly into thirds.
- Roll out the first third until it is a circle just large enough to fit inside the cake tin.
- Tidy up the edges of the circle, if necessary, and place it on top of the batter in the tin.
- Add the remaining batter over the top and cover the cake tin loosely with foil.
- Bake the cake in the oven at 325°F (160°C) for 3 hours, until the top is browned and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake emerges cleanly.
- When done, transfer the cake to a wire rack and leave it to cool in the tin for 20 minutes; then turn the cake out onto a wire rack and leave it to cool completely.
- When the cake has cooled, place it on an oven-proof serving plate and coat the top and sides with apricot jam or marmalade.
- Roll out the next third of remaining marzipan to a circle large enough to cover the top of the cake fully.
- Roll out the remaining marzipan into a strip approx. 25¼” (64 cm) long and only slightly wider than the height of the cake.
- Place the circle of marzipan on top of the coated cake.
- Clad the sides of the cake with the ribbon of marzipan, sealing the two short sides of the ribbon together where they meet.
- Join the top edge of the ribbon to the edge to the marzipan circle at the top by gently smoothing the edges together.
- Press any overlap at the bottom neatly onto the (oven-proof) serving plate.
- Arrange 11 of the previously made marzipan balls evenly around the edge of the cake (and place a twelfth ball in the center, if desired).
- Brush the top of the cake and the balls with a little beaten egg and place the cake under a broiler (grill) or the top element of the oven until the balls and the top of the cake are golden brown (do not overbrown or burn the cake).
- Decorate with additional Easter items, such as chicks, if desired.
Home-made Almond Paste
For 24 oz (680 g)
● 14 oz (400 g) of powdered sugar (1 lb pack minus 4 tbsp)
● 10 oz (225 g) of ground almonds
● 1 large egg yolk, beaten lightly
● 3-4 tablespoons (45-60 ml) of orange juice
● 5 drops (1.5 ml) of almond essence
This recipe requires a good food processor with a steel blade.
- Place the icing sugar and almonds in the food processor.
- Set the processor to slow speed and gradually drip in the egg yolk, orange juice and almond essence, allowing time for each addition to blend.
- Process until you have a smooth paste that you can knead and mold.
If you are making Simnel cake as above, remove enough of the paste to make 11 or 12 balls and then use approx. one-third of the remainder for the filling and the other two-thirds for covering the cake.
Bury Simnel Cakes
Many cakes for the north-west of England, such as Chorley cakes, Eccles cakes, Cumberland currant cakes and sad cakes, would be classed as being closer to pastries than cakes and the town of Bury, near Manchester, has developed its own Simnel cake that is rich enough for a festive occasion but handy and simple enough to make for any occasion. It is an ideal lunchbox dessert.
● 2¼ cups (10 oz / 280 g) of plain flour
● ½ tsp (2.5 g) of salt
● ½ tsp (2.5 g) of baking powder
● ½ tsp (2.5 g) of mixed spice
● 1 stick (4 oz / 120 g) of butter, cut into small cubes
● 1 tbsp (15 g) of candied peel, chopped
● 4 tbsp (60 g) of currants
● 4 tbsp (60 g) sultanas or golden raisins
● 4 tbsp (60 g) of brown sugar
● 2 tbsp (30 g) of blanched almonds, chopped
● 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- Pre-heat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Mix the flour, salt, baking powder and mixed spice together in a large bowl.
- Add the butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
- Add the fruit and brown sugar and mix in well.
- Add the eggs to the mixture and stir until a stiff dough has formed (if the mixture is a little too dry, add a little milk).
- Turn the dough onto a lightly-floured work surface and roll it out to about ½” (12 mm) in thickness.
- Cut the dough into rounds using a large cookie cutter or by cutting around the edge of a small saucer. Sprinkle over the chopped almonds and press them slightly into the top of the cakes, without flattening the cakes.
- Place the cakes on a greased baking tray and bake in the center of the oven at 375°F (190°C) for 45 minutes, or until cooked through and golden.